The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced May 10 that the agency plans to prepare two separate environmental impact statements (EIS) to better inform decision-making regarding the regulatory status of crops genetically engineered (GE) to be resistant to the herbicides known as 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and dicamba. APHIS' Notices of Intent to prepare these EIS’s will officially publish in the Federal Register and each notice will be accompanied by a 60-day public comment period.
“The Agriculture Department’s announcement that it will require full environmental impact statements for new corn, soybean and cotton crops developed through biotechnology to be herbicide-resistant is troubling,” Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau president, said May 13.
These are the first GE plants developed to be resistant to these specific herbicides, which have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and have been safely and widely used across the country since the 1960's to control weeds on crop and non-crop sites. These GE plants provide farmers flexibility for new applications of these herbicides, while also offering farmers additional crop planting options.
“The prompt availability of new technologies, including crop varieties that are resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba herbicides, will allow America’s crop farmers to continue their legacy of continuous improvement – growing more food using fewer resources than ever before,” Stallman said.
For the 2,4-D resistant plants (one corn and two soybean varieties), APHIS has previously made available for public review and comment petitions by Dow to deregulate the products, along with draft environmental assessments and plant pest risk assessments for two out of the three products. APHIS received approximately 8,200 comments, including petitions signed by more than 400,000 people in response to these documents.
For the dicamba-resistant plants (one soybean and one cotton variety), APHIS previously made available for public review and comment petitions by Monsanto to deregulate the products. The comment period on the petition for the cotton variety recently closed on April 29, 2013. APHIS has received more than 500 individual comments and 31,000 form letters regarding these two petitions.
Comments received in response to all of the 2,4-D and dicamba documents have been similar in scope, ranging from the importance of making additional herbicide-resistant crops available for producers, to focusing on the potential increased volume of herbicides containing 2,4-D and dicamba, their movement onto non-target crops in surrounding areas, and the potential for the development of herbicide-resistant weeds.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the USDA is required to have APHIS evaluate the potential environmental impacts that could result from a deregulation of new GE plants by the agency. If APHIS finds that its potential regulatory decision may significantly affect the quality of the human environment, the agency must prepare an EIS before making a decision on the proposed federal action.
With regard to these new herbicide-resistant plants, through its analysis of information submitted by the developers, as well as public comments, APHIS has determined that its regulatory decisions may significantly affect the quality of the human environment. APHIS therefore believes it is necessary under NEPA to prepare these two EIS's to further assist the agency in evaluating any potential environmental impacts before making a final determination regarding the products' regulatory status.
“Most disturbing is that USDA has not provided scientific justification for why full environmental impact statements are needed, rather than the usual environmental assessments,” Stallman said.
While the EIS's will look more broadly at potential impacts to the environment as a whole, APHIS' regulatory authority is based on The Plant Protection Act and the agency's oversight is specific to evaluating the potential for the GE plants to pose a plant pest risk to crops or other plants.